There’s a fair amount of controversy, confusion, and misunderstanding surrounding the relationship between empathy and autism. Of course, autism is a spectrum and there are as many presentations of it as there are autistic individuals, but one of the classic and traditional diagnostic criteria assessed empathy, with the notion that autistic people lack empathy. I don’t feel qualified or informed enough to comment on any sort of “autistic population” at large, but I do know that there is a subset of autistic people, particularly women, who are extremely empathetic. This is sometimes speculated to contribute to the frequency of females evading proper diagnosis at a younger age: the screening tools employed are looking for one thing (significant lack of empathy), while the characteristic is radically different. This makes as much sense as a taxonomist deciding that in order to be classified as a mammal, an animal must lay eggs. Sure, there are a handful of mammals that do (platypus and echidna), but many (and most) don’t.
It might surprise you to know that the adult females that I’ve met who have autism spectrum diagnoses tend to consider themselves to be overly sensitive and empathetic. My occupational therapist describes us as Empaths. Besides just understanding the emotions of others, we feel them, viscerally and emotionally. If someone is frustrated by a situation, we feel frustrated too. After the death of a friend’s loved one we may not even know personally, we cry because we know they cried. If someone is depressed, we absorb that emotion and join them in that place of heartache and sullen heaviness. It can even extend to physical mirroring, as I call it. In this context, as someone else describes or exhibits physical pain or discomfort, we may feel it as well. This is something I frequently experience, which is both bizarre and uncomfortable, both socially (embarrassing) and physically (who wants to experience additional pain?). If I’m trying to be a good listener and sympathize with someone’s discomfort or burden, my job doing that is polluted and challenged if I’m empathizing instead of sympathizing. It’s their time to complain and express; it’s my responsibility to be a supportive listener, keeping the story in their narrative instead of entering it as a participant. Instead of feeling fully engaged and focused on listening and showing care, I find myself expending significant mental energy to fight the pain I’ve taken on by imagining I’m them and pretending I’m completely physically fine as I should be. It’s distracting and frustrating; it’s already hard for me to understand language and communicate socially, so the last thing I need is additional roadblocks. This “physical mirroring” happens to me most often with people I know and care about, but also sometimes with characters on TV or in books, especially with animals and children.
This weird empathetic phenomenon can even extend to inanimate objects. When I see things that look like they should be alive, I panic when they look trapped or damaged. One of my favorite little annual traditions when I lived in New York City was browsing the Christmas craft village at Columbus Circle: a bevy of unique artisans displaying their products in rows and rows of tents. I am obsessed with lions and I went with mom my last year in NYC and we bought this stuffed aromatherapy lion who had a pouch for a microwaveable scented heart that was supposed to aid relaxation with a calming lavender aroma. Well, the woman selling the lion tried to remove him from the plastic packaging he was in. His head was out but his body was ensnared in a flimsy clear plastic box to help display him. She started wrestling to get him out, holding him by the head to pull his body through the neck hole, and I had a MELT down. I totally freaked out, crying and crying, telling my mom he was hurting. My own neck started feeling strangled and I felt the weight and pressure of a confining enclosure around my limbs. It was real and it was admittedly embarrassing: a 26-year-old in a puddle of tears and a coughing fit, yelling “don’t hurt him!” over a stuffed toy. Passersby most likely misinterpreted my behavior to be a grown adult throwing a toddler’s temper tantrum over my mom saying “no.” I could feel the rise of body heat that comes with shame as it battled my compassion for the lion’s painless pain; after all, I’m fully cognizant of societal norms for adult behavior and I was violating all of them (I’m also aware that a stuffed animal is not actually in pain). Mom had to interpret through my halted gasps and tears that yes, we wanted the lion, but no, please do not continue to remove him from the box for our inspection; he looked just great. I don’t think it was a matter of too many read-throughs of Corduroy as a kid, either. It’s just the way I’ve always been and I can recall many similar incidents.
What I’m trying to say is: challenge and question stereotypes, and operate from a place of curiosity and compassion when you encounter something you don’t understand or that contradicts your previously established thinking. Don’t assume that someone is a certain way or doing a certain thing because they are “autistic” (or any other diagnosis, race, religion, or any other categorization). Many disabilities are invisible, but everyone has a story and everyone, for the most part, is doing their best. Don’t assume autistic people don’t care about your feelings or thoughts; don’t misinterpret their responses as a lack of compassion or inability to empathize. Like all groups of people, we are all different and some of us absolutely care, more than you could know. We just may lack the ability to communicate or demonstrate that compassion in the “normal” way, or we may be caring “too much” and don’t want to overshadow your needs.
Autism, like all the labels I carry, does not come with a uniform. We don’t all look, think, feel, or act the same. We are like you and very different from you. Many of us, like many of you, are looking for connection, compassion, patience, and understanding. When in doubt about our (or anyone’s) intentions or behavior, just ask. After all, isn’t it interesting to learn about someone else’s world experience? Don’t let “differentness” or confusion prevent you from connecting. Let those with differences into your world and shatter whatever stereotypes you may consciously and unconsciously hold; let us be missionaries of love and understanding, students of human nature and of each other.